This story first appeared on November 2, 2011.

Council Field-Trips to SMU For a Lecture on Ethics From Someone in Federal Gov’t. Oh, Boy.

Anna Merian, Dallas Observer, November 2, 2011

Ethics reforms, or at least the earnest discussion thereof, are in the air over at City Hall lately. Mayor Rawlings won his seat, after all, at least partially based on a "pro-ethics" platform (not something many people come out against, but still). Then a couple weeks back, council member Jerry Allen rang in the Budget, Finance and Audit Committee by declaring that city has been "tainted by ethical acts," by which we are sure he meant unethical. And despite all that business back in May with the city council loosening the rules on when, exactly, lobbyists can give them money, the council members seem to want to signal they've turned over a brand-spanking-new leaf.

Hence their attendance, along with several others, including City Manager Mary Suhm and City Attorney Tom Perkins, at this morning's "Ethics, Trust and Transparency" conference at SMU, as Robert mentioned the other day. The conference was presented by the Maguire Center for Public Responsibility, and one of its "Platinum level" sponsors was The Dallas Morning News. You can find a full list of people who paid for this ethics party right -- well, nowhere online, actually, but there were 10 other sponsors, all of whom were listed on the back of the program. They include Edelman, an international public relations firm with an office here, and the also-Dallas-based TD Industries. There were eight individual donors, whose names I'll check to see if they elicit an exasperated sigh from Jim.

The panel the council members came to see was titled "Ethical Leadership in Government," moderated by Mike Davis, a senior lecturer at SMU's Cox School of Business. The panelists were Arthur Athens, a director of the ethical leadership center at the US Naval Academy; Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University; and Don Fox, the acting director and general counsel for the United States Office of Government Ethics. Yes, there's an Office of Government Ethics. Be nice.
Davis began by asking the panelists if they thought government ethics are based too much on "rules." They did. Fox said he would prefer the emphasis to be on "relationships."

"You have to not only espouse high ethical standards, but embody them and exemplify them as well," he added.

Athens agreed. "Culture is established by leaders," he said. "You have to focus on doing what's right, even when it costs you personally."

Nadler, who served as mayor of Santa Clara for eight years, added that she believes the focus in politics is too often was on following the letter of the law, not the ethical spirit behind it. "The law is the floor, not the ceiling," she said. (She also addressed the council members directly several times and said she understood the mayor's job comes with "lots of criticism and not a lot of love," and that it's "often not very uplifting or flattering.")

The panelists also spoke repeatedly about the need for transparency. In the cases of Athens and Fox, they also praised the institutions they work for (the military and the federal government, respectively) for creating higher standards of public disclosure. Fox explained that the Office of Government Ethics was founded post-Watergate, and said the government has since created "a mosaic of transparency" through various federal advisory boards and laws like the Freedom of Information Act. (Fun bonus fact: the Department of Justice is currently trying to drastically weaken FOIA laws.) Athens said that the decision to embed journalists with active-duty military is "as transparent as you're gonna get," adding "that transparency has really worked for the military" (elsewhere, it's been furiously debated, though.)

Overall, though, the sentiments of the panel could best be summed up by Nadler, who said the project of creating a "culture of ethics" has "to start from the top down."

"Make it a priority," she said. "Set aside the staff and the finances." She suggested that any organization's code of ethics needs to be near the front of their website, and that ethical guidelines should be "renewed and reaffirmed each year." If they need to be "tweaked," she said, "do it in a public way."

Nadler also told the politicians in the room to "never lose sight of who you are." She urged them to "keep both feet on the ground" by continuing to go to the library and the grocery store themselves, as well as do their own laundry (We find that to be sound advice, which I practice daily. Mainly because I can't seem to convince anyone else to wash my socks for me.) Taking on a "mindset of privilege," she said, or allowing anyone to do you favors without expecting them to want something in return, is dangerous.

The panel ended with no time for questions, and the city council members headed for lunch in the atrium of the Collins Center. When asked, many said they were especially inspired by the reminder that rules and laws should be a reflection of the high moral values of city leaders.

"Regardless of how many rules you put in place, it all boils down to the person," Dwaine Caraway told us. Scott Griggs agreed. "It was more informative than the speaker at the retreat," he added dryly. (That would be pollster Frank Luntz. You remember him, right?)

Mayor Rawlings also praised the event, saying he was inspired to "create a culture of values" in the city. He said Nadler's idea to put the code of ethics front-and-center on the city website was "great."

"Events like these create a fertile ground," he said, "where ideas will pop up and grow and ferment."

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